Shall Tyranny or Freedom Rule the World?


The Main Debate: Communism Versus Capitalism, edited by Tibor R. Machan, New York: Random House, 481 pages, $19.95

Attend any conference of the intellectual and political elements of the coalition that elected Ronald Reagan and you are sure to think that the "main debate" is between those who want the government to instill moral virtue in the young and those who would keep government as far from the young as possible; between those who argue that nearly everything the state does is by nature illegitimate and those who, being of a more practical bent, wish to "privatize" what the state now does so badly; between those who seem to have imbibed the language of individual rights (though not that of duties) with their mother's milk and those who long for a return to a tradition bereft of these noxious "abstract," "revolutionary" rights; between populists who would have left William Jennings Bryan gasping for breath and stern defenders of status against the "revolt of the masses."

These questions are of vital importance. If they are not answered in a way that all factions can live with, we are likely to experience a return to the ethos of the Johnson and Carter years. Tibor Machan has done us all a great service by producing a book that reminds us of what we—at least most of us—hold in common, and, more importantly, of what the stakes in this greater debate are.

No amount of privatization or deregulation, no amount of prayer in the schools or the lack of it, no settling of the questions between women's rights and family values, will have the slightest effect on the future of this country if the greatest struggle facing the world since the end of World War II—namely, whether tyranny or freedom will rule the world—is not settled, or at least continued, on grounds favorable to the side of freedom. And that issue will be decided primarily by an intellectual debate in the West.

Few there are these days who live under Marxist regimes and retain much faith in the airy promises of Marx and Engels.

But in the West the attachment of intellectuals to Marxist ideals often appears to be strengthened by the very weight and variety of facts that can be produced against those ideals. Mental perversity takes no hostages in academe. Hence there would appear to be little reason to engage in debate and discussion with Marxists. And that is probably true. But there are students. It is to them that the arguments must be directed.

This book does a fine job of bringing together opposing sides—written not in some feigned social science objectivity, by the way, but rather by those who passionately believe in Marxism and those who just as passionately disagree with it (even if few on either side, unfortunately, write with much passion, to say nothing of elegance).

Here one can read some of the leading proponents arguing for and against Marxist notions of political economy, imperialism, individual rights, dialectics, and the opposed views of liberty that result from different views of human nature. There is a defense of the West taken from P.T. Bauer's classic Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion; a pairing of Robert Heilbroner and Ernst Topitsch on dialectics, and Bhikhu Perekh and Nathaniel Branden on alienation; and Geoffrey de Ste. Croix's Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture, which argues the necessity for class analysis of ancient political life, a method that is becoming increasingly influential in classical studies.

While all of these topics are critical to the debate, it is on the question of human nature that much of the debate turns. Fortunately, there are good opposing essays by Jon Elster and Machan on this subject.

If the Marxists are right on this issue, then it would appear that all that would be required for the ultimate victory of their arguments are a few minor adjustments to Marx's errors in those many practical areas where he was so clearly wrong. If, on the other hand, the Western tradition is right regarding human nature, no possible benefit of Marxism, even if one could demonstrate the likelihood of such a thing, could justify even its most benign promises, let alone the methods its practitioners have always felt were necessary to bring it about.

This is because the strength of Marx's appeal lies not merely in the envy to which it panders. Most fundamentally, it lies in the Marxist conception of freedom. Whether one speaks of the teleological views of the ancients or of the individual rights–based arguments of the moderns, there is agreement in the West that in human nature there resides a certain fixity, a fixity with political implications: humans are the "in-between" animal, they are those creatures that, being neither gods nor beasts, ought not to be treated like beasts; and just as certainly ought they never to be entrusted with the powers of gods. This is why some form of limited government is argued for in Aristotle's Politics no less than in the Federalist Papers.

Awareness of the limitations of man's nature has tended to keep the Western tradition on the side of limited government—although with the nectar of freedom there has been many a slip between the cup and the lip. In this tradition, liberty means not only freedom from the power and purposes of other regimes but also some measure of personal liberty from the strength and intrusions of one's own government.

In contrast, Marxists argue that all notions of nature and human nature are the consequence of the material conditions of production and therefore that man's "nature" is unfixed, that the limitations others think of as natural—self-interest, a concern for one's own rather than for others, and so on—can be "overcome."

This is why "liberation," while always promising freedom, delivers tyranny always and everywhere it is attempted. Ultimately, Marxist liberation means liberation from the limits of nature and human nature. Since it is not true that one can ignore nature, one is left with the alternative of conquering it. This is why the atrocities of Pol Pot were no more aberrations from true Marxism than were Mao's bloody "leaps" or Stalin's brutal purges and collectivizations. For a Marxist to decide not to pursue such policies simply means that he has given up true Marxism for the class comforts and pleasures of bureaucratic despotism.

Whether a Marxist regime is vicious or merely stultifying in its demands for obedience and conformity, one can be sure of one thing: it will not be a system that can in any meaningful way be described as falling within the tradition of limited government. Its tasks being unlimited, so must be its means.

This book does such a nice job of allowing the antagonists to speak for themselves that my only quarrel with it is one which, I must admit, is not quite fair. This is a collection of essays written primarily by professional philosophers and economists to be used in undergraduate courses. As such, it tends to ignore the political dimension of the argument. And yet one can sometimes learn much from the political view of philosophic questions that have practical implications.

After all, it is not, as some of these essays would have us believe, simply a question between collectivism and individualism (as is shown by Machan's own fine essay). One does not have to be a socialist to admit that man does some things better collectively. Nowhere is this stated quite so clearly as in the words of that inveterate old anticommunist, Winston Churchill, who used to lament that "the infant Bolshevism" was not "strangled in its crib at birth."

In early October 1906, Churchill sought to address the differences between liberalism and socialism in a speech at St. Andrew's Hall, Glasgow. Convinced that the cause of the Labour Party had become the cause of revolution, Churchill sought to assure the "labouring classes," as they were then known, that the Liberal Party was not only a party of the upper and middle classes but that it was also the party of "the left-out millions."

Turning to the heart of the matter, he argued in thundering town-hall oratory: "No man can be a collectivist alone or an individualist alone.…The nature of man is a dual nature.…Man is at once a unique being and a gregarious animal. For some purposes he must be collectivist, for others he is, and he will for all time remain, an individualist. Collectively we have an Army and a Navy and a Civil Service; collectively we have a Post Office, and a police, and a Government; collectively we light our streets and supply ourselves with water; collectively we indulge increasingly in all the necessities of communication."

And then, pausing, he added: "But we do not make love collectively, and the ladies do not marry us collectively, and we do not eat collectively, and we do not die collectively, and it is not collectively that we face the sorrows and the hopes, the winnings and the losings of this world of accident and storm."

It may well be that Churchill was mistaken in the particulars he assigned to collective action. He surely was not, as regards the importance of the individual. In any event, not paying sufficient attention to this dual nature is where, Churchill thought, the socialist makes a mistake. Echoing the greatest leader of modern democratic coalitions for freedom, "Let us not imitate that mistake." To do so would be to invite stretching the bonds that unite us to the breaking point. And if we break, who will carry on the "Main Debate"?

Jeffrey Wallin is the director of program development at the Liberty Fund in Indianapolis, Indiana, and has taught in the Department of Politics at the University of Dallas.